Planting the Oneida Way

My dad lost his arm on May 13th of 1941. He was the yard foreman for the Holberg Paper Mill. They wanted to give him a watchman’s job with pushing a broom afterward, and he didn’t go for that. He did not go for that. So, once he got a settlement, he paid cash for a small farm in Green Bay—and for his animals and his machinery—and he started to farm.

Photo courtesy of The Lands We Share project

Loretta Metoxen | Seymour, WI

“When I was three years old, I was walking under the horses and fighting with the geese. I was climbing to the top of the haystacks—the first time my family thought it was funny and the second time I got my backside warm. I started milking cows by hand when I was nine. I started making hay when I was 10 with the hay loader. I was working next to dad all the time and I was as strong as my brothers.

Might have been 15, 16, I butchered rabbits. I snared them between the buildings. You make a snare, a loop, and then the rabbit runs through there and you catch ‘em. I butchered rabbits, chickens, I helped butcher a steer.

My dad told me what I had to do and I could do it. I think he taught me just about everything he knew on that farm.

My father’s parents came from Poland. He’s first generation Polish on this side of the Atlantic. My mother’s parents were both Oneida. We can trace our Oneida line back to the Revolutionary War. When I was a kid, like eight or nine years old, we used to drive around on Sundays. Dad put us in the car and he said you could tell every Oneida house, ‘Cause there’s always a patch of beans, or a patch of corn and squash outside of their place.’

The white corn that we grow, it’s called 120-day corn, or eight row corn, and it’s flint. That means that it’s a round kernel. It’s not dented or crinkled like sweetcorn. The traditional Oneida way of planting is to plant corn in a hill, about four to six seeds. Then when it’s about two feet high, you plant the beans—so the pole beans can grow up on the corn stalks— then you plant the squash on the outside. There’s a couple of reasons why you plant squash. First of all, it’s good healthy food and second, the raccoons don’t like to walk on those prickly leaves, so you keep the raccoons away from the corn. We have dances for the corn, including the green corn dance. Green corn is when the corn is in the milk stage. That corn is sweet like sweet corn and we make corn bread out of it.

My mom knew tribal cooking and she knew Polish cooking and she made the best meals. So I grew up always surrounded by two cultures.

For twenty years now, I have been the Oneida tribal historian, elected by the population of the tribe, researching, writing, and conducting presentations to people all the way from kindergarten through people who are working on their doctorates. We Oneida need to know why we’re here. Together, we need to have a shared purpose to embrace our traditions.”

Loretta’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s collaboration with The Lands We Share, a project that focuses on the intersection of farming, land, ethnic culture, and history in Wisconsin. To hear a snippet of Loretta’s interview, click this link and scroll down to ‘Oneida’ and look for Loretta Metoxen.

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